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Sun 17 November 2019
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CJ Werleman examines how Australia’s mainstream news media is feeding white nationalist extremist views into normal political discourse and how those in power are reluctant to do anything about such terrorism.


“The threat from the extreme right-wing in Australia has increased in recent years,” concluded Australia’s top spy agency, ASIO, in its annual report published on Wednesday.

“Extreme right-wing groups in Australia are more cohesive and organised than they have been over previous years, and will remain an enduring threat,” the report states.

Coincidentally – and chillingly – ASIO’s report was published the day after the Supreme Court in Melbourne heard how Phillip Galea (pictured), a 34-year-old far-right extremist, plotted “cutting throats” in the city’s centre before leaving “a line of dead lefties” around him.

Like fellow Australian Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year – and the dozens of others who have attacked mosques, synagogues, black churches and shopping malls throughout the Western hemisphere during the past several years – Galea had also bought into the ‘Great Replacement’ theory: a white nationalist, right-wing conspiracy that the white race is being supplanted by immigrants, particularly Muslims, at the hands of a secretive liberal/Jewish cabal.

Galea was associated with the far-right group Reclaim Australia and blamed “the left” for what he described as the “Islamisation of Australia,” according to prosecutors, who played a phone call of Galea allegedly saying: “Eventually we’ll put them [leftists] all in ovens… with the Muslims… I joined this movement because I wanted to fight.”

While far-right extremism has always been a feature of the Australian political landscape, the “movement”, as referred to by Galea, has gained significant traction in the past decade, particularly with the growth and popularity of social media platforms, allowing hateful and divisive far-right ideologies to reach broader audiences.

One only has to examine the way in which social media accounts belonging to far-right groups, such as Reclaim Australia, Australian Defense League, Rise Up Australia, United Patriots Front, Australian Liberty Alliance, Nationalist Alternative, among others, have exploded in popularity in recent years to appreciate the gravity of the threat.

Although these groups don’t necessarily espouse a specific ideology, they do embrace and amplify an amalgam of beliefs and attitudes, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, white supremacy, homophobia, and neo-Nazism – thus placing Muslims, Jews, liberals, immigrants, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, transgender people and homosexuals in their cross hairs.

At the core of their collective worldview is a Trumpian-like belief that posits foreigners and other undesirables to be a threat to white racial purity and the white dominant identity of the nation state. Alarmingly, a giant slice of Australia’s mainstream news media amplifies this by fixating upon and exaggerating crimes carried out by non-white immigrants, particularly those of Muslim heritage.

A newly published discursive analysis of six Murdoch-owned newspapers in Australia – which include The Australian, Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph, Courier Mail, and Adelaide Advertiser and account for the lion’s share of the country’s print journalism – found 2,891 negative stories about Islam and Muslims in 2017, which equates to eight stories a day. Negative stories about Muslims and Islam were carried on the front pages of 152 daily editions, with six of the “most controversial commentators in the Australian news media” dedicating nearly one-third of their opinion articles to smearing Muslims and their religious faith.

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“In every statistic we found, from negative coverage to front page features to audience write-ins, we came to the same conclusion: the way the media talks about Islam in Australia is disproportionate, divisive, and dangerous,” observe the authors of the report. “[From] incendiary front-pages… about government and police policy regarding terrorism, a casual observer would not be faulted for thinking that Australia was actively engaged in daily combat on its streets.”

It is therefore not difficult to see how both Tarrant and Galea came to believe that their far-right conspiratorial views were legitimate and normal. In other words, the country’s mainstream news media is feeding extremist views into normal political discourse; a reality underscored by the fact that a record number of far-right political parties contested the recent federal election.

The challenge for Australia’s security forces is that much of what far-right groups and individuals do falls within the bounds of legal behaviour. For instance, expressing support for a neo-Nazi group falls within the bounds of free speech, whereas expressing support for a violent jihadist group falls within the bounds of criminal activity.

The difficulty counter-terrorism practitioners face in identifying a potential lone wolf terrorist based on his social media activity and participation in the lawful activities of far-right groups is obvious, which makes this threat all the more elevated. Further compounding the threat of white nationalist domestic terrorism is the fact the country’s intelligence agencies are overloaded with demands to counter foreign espionage, particularly efforts by China to spy on both the public and private sectors.

“Our capacity to provide our partners with advice is being outstripped by demand,” ASIO said in its annual report. Its director, Duncan Lewis, added: “With the terrorist threat showing no signs of significantly decreasing, ASIO has limited scope to redirect internal resources to address the increasing gap between demand for our counter-espionage and foreign interference advice and our ability to furnish this assistance.”

On top of all this is the realisation that the political leadership of the country is not taking the threat of right-wing extremism seriously, mostly because the Government is currently led by a conservative coalition. In short, right-wing governments don’t tend to gain politically by condemning their most extreme supporters, which explains their reticence to speak out against the threat.

“The point is this: I don’t care if it’s Islamist inspired or supremacist inspired, if it represents a threat to the Australian people it should be taken seriously,” Labour MP Ed Husic told the Australian Parliament this week. “And I’m telling you now, based on the briefings I’ve received, we are not taking this seriously.”

Australia should pay close attention to what happened to the United States after the Trump administration chose to ignore the threat of right-wing extremism immediately after taking office. The US finds itself today standing in the midst of a white nationalist domestic terrorism crisis.

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